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Wayne Helped Her Stake Claim to Fame

March 12, 1988|ROBERT LACHMAN | Times Staff Writer and

Beth Koch, usually found these days photographing Orange County's movers and shakers, has a well-earned reputation that extends far beyond this area.

And oddly enough, it was a snowstorm that launched a career that includes works in Life magazine and some of the most-recognized shots of such notables as John Wayne and astronaut Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin.

Koch, an Irvine resident who was born in Livingston, Mont., in 1920, entered a miniature golf tournament when she was 9 and won first prize--a rather primitive box Brownie camera.

Putting had nothing to do with the victory, however. Heavy snows had kept everyone but Koch at home.

The simplicity of that first camera may well have something to do with the style she was to develop; simplicity is her byword, natural light her milieu.

That stylized technique is evident in her self-published book, "The Educated Eye," a compilation of black-and-white photos that strives to touch the human element of daily life.

Of all her photographs, she is especially proud of a picture that appeared in Life of a mischievous-looking boy holding a cross-eyed cat. The picture left a lasting impression on those who saw it and sets the tone for her style of photography.

"My goal is to make every picture look convincing and not look like (the result of) a formal picture-taking session," Koch said.

She emphasizes that philosophy in her book, which wasn't designed to be on the best-seller list, just a fun photographic experience to rest on your coffee table. The book is light on the technical side, but the accompanying text helps to bring out the subtleties of the photographs.

"One thing I stress is bonding with the subject, becoming one with the subject" Koch said. "You see, it's more important what you are rather than who you are. The photograph is an extension of the photographer. We work toward becoming so comfortable with the camera that it's just a means to justify the end. It's as if you aren't even thinking about it."

Above all, Koch believes that simplicity is the key.

"Every good photographer in the world uses the principles in my book," Koch said. "It's pulled together (in the book) for the person in a hurry who wants to get it now and doesn't want to know that much. Most of the (photography) books, you get through them and can't remember what they said."

Her book is dedicated to Earl Theisen, a senior photographer at Look magazine. She credits him with having a profound influence on her career.

"The only thing that really interested me in this life was something creative, something I could really hold on to," Koch said. "I was just beginning to paint, and . . . was always interested in photography. So we studied with (photographer) William Mortensen in Laguna Beach."

That led to her association with Theisen. She took his class at UCLA in 1964 and again in 1965. That was the year she struck out on her own.

"I was (one of) the first women photographers around Orange County," Koch said. "I started out shooting families, but in the manner of Look or Life magazine. I would go out and pretend subconsciously I was out on assignment and photograph a day in the life of the family.

"I would photograph size, relationships, surroundings, how they felt about each other, what they looked like, what their interests were at that point.

"But then I didn't know what to do with 20 or 30 pictures. I was shooting all black and white at that time. So I came up with (the idea) of making small books. Those books are all over the world, as simple as they are. One of my clients has over 40 of them. I am a family historian."

But what has separated Koch from others has been who the families are.

John Wayne is certainly her most famous subject. His wife, Pilar, asked Koch to shoot a picture of her and the children as a gift for Wayne. After that assignment, Koch returned to include the Duke in the shots.

"This was the year that he was up for the Oscar for 'True Grit.' . . . The toughest thing was getting this big man down to the level of these little children. But he was very gentle with them. He obviously adored them.

"Pilar was photographing them, and I was photographing Pilar photographing them. I was shooting (everything by) existing light, so the quality was a little soft but the feeling was there."

Koch felt a special bond with the Waynes. She even carried their home phone number with her wherever she went.

"I figured it was better than a hot line to the White House," Koch said. "He was just that type of person. If I had been in trouble in Cairo, he would have done something about it."

Stories like that will pepper her lecture series, titled "The Educated Eye," at both UC Irvine and Coastline Community College. (The Coastline series is scheduled for April and UCI's will be in July.)

"I'm a storytelling photographer. I have to tell something special about an event, a place, a person," she said. "I teach the students to communicate with their cameras with the stress on emotionalism and how to get it into their photographs. . . .

"What's happening is that the subject is reflecting me, my feelings and how I'm feeling. If I'm uncomfortable, that person is going to be uncomfortable."

Koch's works would indicate that she's gone through life fairly comfortably indeed.

The photography column, which runs each Saturday in Orange County Life, is intended to help both the serious amateur and weekend shooter. Questions and ideas are encouraged. Write to: Robert Lachman, Chief Photographer, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626.

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